Do you know the feeling you get, if you are a bibliophile that is, when you visit a friend’s house for the first time and you discover they have a bookshelf loaded with all manner of books with titles and authors that tickle your fancy – and when you get that feeling, how full your heart fills and your brain cannot possibly comprehend the intensity of that moment? You feel so much glee you cannot help but gasp, and instead of little screams/giggles of excitement you compose yourself and ran your fingers across the books and pick a book or two to diffuse the happiness?
That was the state I was in when I discovered the Murumbi Art Gallery. One afternoon, sometime in late 2016, I was walking from Upperhill down to Kenyatta Avenue when I saw this vintage looking building and my curious nature led me to go round the fence and to the gate to discover what is in there. (I have an immense interest in old colonial-period buildings in Nairobi, that explains the curiosity). I would later find out that it is a 1913 building, the oldest building in Nairobi, commonly known as the “Hatches, Matches and Dispatches” because of the births, marriages and deaths that were recorded there as it was the Old PC’s office way back then. Apparently, according to africanheritagehouse.info, the building is the Point Zero of Nairobi from where all measurements to other destinations in the world are taken.
The vintage building is now a National Monument that serves as a museum to the Murumbi Hertitage Collections, and the best part it, it is quite tiny and comprehensive in its model that one can go through the exhibition over a lunch break or a lazy afternoon in town.
But for the art lover, the Murumbi Heritage Collection, which has been open to the public since June 2013 and will likely come to a close in June 2018 (the exhibition was meant to last 5 years), will require more than just a lunch break visit. The Heritage Collection is monumental in that it is named after Joseph Murumbi, the 2nd Kenyan Vice President who served in the Jomo Kenyatta Government as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1964 to 1966, and as the Vice President from May 1966 to December 1966. He resigned from office in November 1966 citing ill-health after the murder of Pio Gama Pinto, fellow politician and friend, who objected the corruption in the Jomo Kenyatta government.
A child of a Goan Kenyan Asian and a Masai mother, Murumbi had spent the first 16 years of his life in India, and this would have been a likely influence in his interest in the arts. Through out his life, and even while in the political arena, and as the husband of his Liberian wife, Sheila, whom he met while in exile from Kenya in 1957 and when he came back, with whom he lived in Muthaiga, Murumbi collected art extensively.
According to public records, Murumbi acquired over 50,000 books and sheaves of official correspondence. 8000 of those rare books published before the 1900s were entrusted to the Kenya National Archives upon his death in 1990. To honor him, the Kenya National Archives created the Murumbi Gallery.
Thus at the Murumbi Art Gallery you find his collections. There are different rooms, 5 in number, and they hold different artifacts from his carefully curated collection. Upon entry to the gallery, there are some pieces on the corridor, among them the glass vase above, and on the adjacent room, a room with his stamp collections from different African countries that were majorly used during the colonial and post colonial period. The stamps are stuck to the wall. The other room next to the entry corridor, is like the currency room, that shows the different currencies that were used in the previous century.
The currencies are gold, silver, beads and old African currency. There is also another room , that is off limits to photography, with art from contemporary African artists on sale. I have some few pieces I like in that room, especially one of a woman “made” from an old-old typewriter. The other room has things from his living room, and his bookshelf, and metal sculpting of flamingos (that I liked very much) and some young male children hand up the wall, that point to the distance like those in Catholic paintings of young angels.
Another room has textiles from Africa, and within that room, another room with books and wood carvings and seats from different areas in Africa. The materials of the textiles are unique to the region or location from which he collected them and their embroidery is intricate and you have to be keen to notice the difference.
Important to note is that Joseph Murumbi was the greatest private cultural collector in Africa. And my recollection does not do justice to the art gallery and you have to visit to see it all.
These photos were taken during my second visit there, this December Holiday. On the 28th I was in Nairobi, and I popped in to spend my afternoon there in between errands.
Making Of A Friend
While there I made the acquintance of Fatou, from the Gambia, a country boarded on all sides by Senegal except its shores that are the Atlantic Ocean. I also did some portraits of her, I will share them in the next post.
There is also an art shop, right at the exit/entrance of the gallery, depending on which side you choose to enter into the gallery, and it has paintings and art cards that can be purchased. The paintings are expensive and they range from 25000KES (250$ onward). The greeting cards are easily affordable though.
There is also a coffee shop with croissants and cakes that sells fresh coffee and tea, and is open to all. The waitresses are friendly and fast. Somehow the noise and bustle coming from the city center is hushed and you can hold a quiet meeting, or hold a poetry or literary gathering, or even work with your laptop if you so wish.
For more on Joseph Murumbi’s life, art collection, rates to the museum and opening times kindly visit the African Heritage Website for all relevant details (Click on this link.)
To read more on Joseph Murumbi and his life, Read this Wikipedia page.